Mary Rose, I think you may be jumping the gun a bit about the pre-Christian tablet recently reported on in the New York Times . You say, “All we can ascertain from this discovery is that this notion mentioned on the tablet—the notion of a suffering messiah dying and rising from the dead after three days—existed before Christ’s time on earth.” The word ascertain means to establish with certainty. But it is clear from the Times article that there is the highest degree of uncertainty about whether the tablet refers to a messiah figure, a rising from the dead, or anything remotely connected to those ideas. The only clear words on the tablet relevant to this interpretation are “in three days”. They are followed by some almost illegible words that may or may not be an unusual form of imperative of the verb to live. It is said to be unclear who these words are addressed to, and what their context and meaning is. There are other illegible words in crucial places. One reads this in the Times article:

Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University, said he spent a long time studying the text and considered it authentic, dating from no later than the first century B.C. . . .

Regarding Mr. Knohl’s thesis [that the tablet refers to the resurrection of a suffering messiah] , Mr. Bar-Asher is also respectful but cautious. “There is one problem,” he said. “In crucial places of the text there is lack of text. I understand Knohl’s tendency to find there keys to the pre-Christian period, but in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words.”

Mr. Bar-Asher obviously does not consider the truth of this thesis to have been “ascertained.” Indeed, one detects in his reference to Knohl’s “tendency to find . . . keys” a diplomatic suggestion that Mr. Knohl is engaged in a bit of wishful thinking. In any event, Knohl seems to be engaged in the very common mistake of over-interpreting data.

It is a fact of life, which ought to shock no one, that academic researchers hype their results shamelessly —- and even their merely hoped-for results. They do this in the abstracts of research papers to get colleagues to read them They do this in grant proposals to get funding. They do this in conference talks to get attention that may get their work talked about and cited in the professional literature. They do it in the media to get publicity in the hopes of gaining fame. The research world is full of people trying to get noticed. That is why one should approach most stories in the press about revolutionary discoveries of any kind with a great deal of skepticism. My rule of thumb (based on reporting about my own field) is that the true significance of scientific discoveries reported in the media is on average about 10% of what it is reported to be.

Articles by Stephen M. Barr